Media Driven Satanic Panic Changed the Way We Can’t Talk About RPGs

Thursday , 21, April 2016 20 Comments

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon tried to soften the Satanic Panic by making a deal with the devil.

The recent discussions about “why we can’t talk about rpgs” have touched on some of the history of role-playing. One watershed moment that changed, fundamentally, how role-playing games are discussed (both within games and in the general public) cannot be overstated.

Just as Dr. Frederick Wertham, with the blessing of academia and a concerned public, used deception and fabrication to ban expression in comic books and inspire the adoption of the “Comics Code”, so too did an apparently Satan-crazed media bring all its power to paint Dungeons & Dragons as a suicidal gateway to the occult.

Dungeons & Dragons is “a fantasy roleplaying game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic-type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings.”

Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (B.A.D.D.), a one-woman “national organization” in the 1980s.

Although much of the hysteria picked up by the national media was driven by two “thought leaders” who would later be discredited, the Satanic Panic was taken very seriously. A drugged, drunken teenage boy murdered a girl in the basement of a house. His defense was that D&D made him do it. The court rejected his claims as irrelevant to motive and convicted him on the conventional charge. But it didn’t matter. From prison, he appealed to worried parents and curious kids to avoid his mistakes: avoid D&D.

Changes since the panic:

  • Later editions of D&D at first eliminated all references to demons and occultism, and then, years later, when they were re-incorporated, they were either sanitized, labeled as evil (non-playable) or placed into “mature audiences/adults only” supplements.
  • “Dungeons & Dragons” as epithet. Now, even before the panic using the term “D&D” was prevalant shorthand for the game. 30 years after the panic, however, even the casual use of the full name “Dungeons & Dragons” carries the connotation of real life strangling of teenage girls in the basement of a deranged pack of male monsters.
  • Disconnection from the table-top: The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon featured kids transported into a D&D fantasyland as D&D characters…by way of an amusement park. The Dungeon Master was a kindly hybrid of ET and Yoda, gently guiding the noble teen characters against the two-dimensional stand-ins for the satanic Venger and Tiamat.

So, no fraudulent “Comics Code” was ever imposed on RPGs, and TSR admittedly benefited from the satanic panic: it drove an unprecedented sales boom in the game, creating a cultural icon. In fact, just like the Comics Code, the game industry worked with a misguided public perception to alter a product and its adoption into the culture.

And that changed discussions in both obvious and subtle ways.  This, in no small part is why the series of Dungeons & Dragons movies bear no resemblance to the original fantasies crafted around a table in the 1970s and early 80s. It is why Christians and other devout players quietly slipped out of “the scene” for decades, or in many cases permanently – not because the game ever “made them” forswear God or the Ten or Two Commandments, but because they concerned themselves with giving their community the “hint” of wrongdoing.

Joel Rosenberg’s “Players Enter the Game” Novel, The Sleeping Dragon

Strangely, the “Players Enter an RPG” novel-series that cuts to the dangers exposed through Role-Playing was entirely ignored during the Satanic Panic. In November of 1983, Joel Rosenberg, a non-gamer, published The Sleeping Dragon, the kick-off novel for the very popular Guardians of the Flame series.  In it, the main characters are players transported into the fantasy world to suffer real death, slavery, rape and all sorts of other realities. The “fun and games” quickly become neither. But the problem is that Rosenberg did his homework, and portrayed the fantasy as a realistic semblance of the sorts of wilderness and keep and kingdom-building scenarios players played in those days. The “satanic” rapists, criminals, occultists and overlords were symbols of evil to be opposed through honor, teamwork, dedication, sacrifice, mercy and justice (as well as the right to bear firearms, but I’m being redundant.)

The answer to the Satanic Panic was very simple: D&D was the direct child of Chainmail! – a hybrid wargame that itself was inspired by Gygax’s attempt to move his passion for Napoleonic wargames to recreate the fantasy battles from books like The Return of the King.  No one was about to mistake a recreation of Waterloo as problematic because it might influence players to become a Tory after playing Wellington. However, in Tracy Hickman’s  public moral defense of D&D, he nevertheless critiqued what he saw as the exploitable design flaw: while moral neutrality was critical to the wargame (otherwise no Englishman would ever want to play the “morally” disadvantaged Napoleon, nor any red-blooded American play the Nazi war machine, complete with death camp tallies, for example) Hickman  didn’t believe that designing an RPG to be “neutral” in moral principles was effective design. It would become a bit like playing monopoly where every player determined his own rate of inflation. “Oh no! My white dollar is worth your orange $500!” is a fast way to end a game. Now, this isn’t really a problem if your game group shares moral principles, but the “neutrality” becomes a bad variable in groups with unlike morality and most definitely to an outside world that is allowed to cast its own perceptions of bad morality into the game and pull them out intact. “See! These kids can rape their friends without consequence!” Nothing in the rules says otherwise!

Ultimately, the panic changed the way we talk about RPGs. First of all, kids “ages 12 and up” aren’t a part of the public conversation anymore. The RPG was a teen-driven phenomenon before and during the satanic panic. The demographics have shifted north of 30.

Christians abandoned – or continued silently – in a game environment that had until the panic had heavy influence and understanding of Christian and Western heritage. The Satanic Panic decoupled the RPG from the core of Medieval Fantasy – Man and the Church.

The Village of Hommlet, in particular, is an overtly Catholic setting. I can’t recall the last mainstream RPG setting that treated Religion as a serious (and entertaining!) source of dramatic conflict. Dogs in the Vineyard are successful independent games, but the truth is that in the Village of Hommlet, a parties PCs could have played an entire session debating the moral implications of following St. Cuthbert, and whether or not such a follower was compelled to physically struggle against an elemental evil, or to resist it through prayer alone. Such a medieval theological challenge simply has no place in the modern satan-shy mass-market.

L. Patt’s original 1970 wargame “Rules for Middle Earth”

 

 

MORE “Talking About Why We Can’t Talk About RPGs”

 

 

20 Comments
  • Jeffro says:

    RPGs are synonymous with D&D. D&D is synonymous with Satanism. Thanks, journalists!

  • Cambias says:

    It’s also amazing how persistent the “D&D is dangerous” meme has been. In the late 1990s I had a conversation with an older (mid-60s age) family acquaintance who knew, with absolute certainty, that D&D was dangerous. She was polite enough to allow that maybe the game lines I wrote for weren’t “bad,” but she knew that D&D was harmful.

    Nor was the person in question some kind of stereotypical rural Fundamentalist. She was as lefty as they come (if she’s still around I’ve no doubt she has a Bernie Sanders sticker on her car) and we were less than a hundred miles from New York at the time.

  • Daniel says:

    A supernatural explanation is that the Satanic Panic was the devil’s own idea, a very pleasant lie, and it stuck. It sure bears all the handiwork of the Father of Lies – Untrue, Masquerading as Light, associated with death and murder, profiteers profiting through grift and deception, etc. Keep in mind that TSR saw sales shoot way up during the panic, so in the short term they had very little incentive to debunk it much, as well.

    From that perspective, the non-Christian might in some ways be more susceptible to perpetuating the “Panic Myths” over the long-haul.

  • I don’t do role playing much for two reasons: 1. time commitment. Life happens, and RPGs don’t really accomodate that well. 2. Most role players in my area are HOSTILE to religion, not just unbelievers. Because they think they’re smarter than Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and GK Chesterton.

    • Don says:

      I found the same when I lived in an urban area twenty some years ago. When I moved to a rural area, I had men who wanted to play but they had to keep it on the down-low from the church. There were still D&D are satan crowd at the church.

    • Daniel says:

      That’s another unintended consequence…the panic made D&D a magnet for anti-religious types and reduced Christian participation significantly.

      If anything, the panic introduced large scale atheism and satanism to a formerly mildly pro-Western Civ game!

      • Don says:

        One of the funny things about our group was that all of our clerics and paladins played outright Christian or thinly veiled Christian characters. And not by collusion. They all just wrote their characters that way.

        • Daniel says:

          Yep. The “cleric as healer” role only solidified as D&D became more MMO-like. Clerics, particularly the more Western/Christian in trappings, used to be played with great diversity: from Van Helsing to Solomon Kane to St. Patrick to Indiana Jones, all of those character types could be found in a party of Clerics and (later) Paladins. The Fighting-Man had a lot more range and character depth, too. Also, it was actually fun to do solo adventures with a 3-HP MU. Well, all of this is still true if you simply avoid the more MMO-like RPGs or go with the old ones. Call of Cthulhu, even with new editions, hasn’t changed significantly, for example. It still plays the same.

          I’m not ripping the MMO-type games, by the way – I like the good ones very much. I just don’t think they fit the original definition of the “R” in RPG. The new-style games use “Role” a lot less and “Responsibility” a lot more. It is simply a different sort of game.

        • Alex says:

          If I recall, Holmes’ clerics were implicitly Catholic and Clerical scrolls were written in latin. Which makes sense in a fridge brilliance way if you go with the notion that Clerical scrolls were written in “common”.

          • Daniel says:

            The Ruthwell Cross is inscribed with runes reciting significant portions from “The Dream of the Rood”, an overtly Christian response to the pagan World Tree. It is D&D Clerical gold, and was the sort of thing my little band of atheist players came across all the time in the old adventures.

    • Christopher says:

      “Most role players in my area are HOSTILE to religion, not just unbelievers.” That hostility has crept in all over fandom, and it’s ubiquitous is one of the reasons why I dropped out of it for a long time, until I realized that I wasn’t going to let the bitter mob drive me away from things I enjoyed. The first time I went to DragonCon, there was a panel on zombie biology, and this older lady dressed like a fairy sashayed to the microphone, and asked the panel, this look of pure sophistry on her face “What kind of zombie Jesus was,” to, which this one panelist, a professor replied, “my favorite kind, fictional” and there was anger and vindication in his voice. What I thought was sad those, was you could tell here were people fully immersed in their belief of victimhood and speaking truth to power…it’s not brave when you’re preaching to the converted. I didn’t raise any counterpoints, because I think I would have been run out of the room, but also because, unlike most other ‘Cons, which are small and dying, and kinda sad, DragonCon literally does have something for everyone, including fans of the Christian or other religious variety.

      American Christians made a big, big mistake when it came to gaming, genre fiction, and heavy metal music. We unnecessarily alienated people, ceded entire swaths of culture uncontested, and locked ourselves out of the room, and we’re paying for it now.

      • Don says:

        I’m working on an explicitly Christian setting for my Fantasy RPG. My players kind of demanded it at first. Then it struck me as a good idea on it’s own.

        Right now the theme is Arthurian but the players don’t know it yet because Arthurian Britain was a big dark place with lots to explore.

  • Don says:

    I started playing D&D in ’76. When the satanic panic hit I told everyone I knew it was ridiculous. There were no spells, no worshiping of gods or demons, it was a game. Like playing make-believe.

    Weirdly, two decades later, I had some satanists ask me to run a game for them in which satanistic ideas and morality were the focus. That was a surreal experience.

  • Sky says:

    My mom threw away my red box after watching a 700 club about d&d. I think it was 700 club. Anyway she was so deadly serious when she explained it to me I felt unable to get angry about it. A few years later nobody cared and I got into AD&D then drifted out of the hobby. When I found my way back I got the red box books off eBay and it was a wonderful reunion.

  • James Sullivan says:

    I played my first D&D game in the fall of 1994 (it was 2nd Edition, my first love). I had relatives who were horrified that I was playing such an “evil game”.

    My parents (best parents EVAH) actually did some research, since the were fairly neutral on the idea. My father found a study done by the US Congress (I think) in response to the anti-Dungeons and Dragons hysteria roughly a decade earlier. The report said that playing the games was relatively healthy and fostered a use of math and arithmetic outside of school.

    They both said, when all was said and done, that not only could I play D&D but that I could host it every Saturday in our house and my dad would buy soda and pizzas for everyone. My parents were very wise.

    They ended up knowing where their son was every Saturday night. And they were also able the develop close relationships with all of their son’s friends, a tactic that, I realized later in life, worked wonders for keeping their son on the straight and narrow.

    All for the price of a couple of pizzas and some twelve packs of Mountain Dew.

    • Don says:

      Good parents. Intelligent and wise. We did the same thing for our kids both with and without RPGs.

      Glad to see other people used similar strategies.

  • Eric Ashley says:

    M.J. Young who wrote ‘Multiverser: The Game’ also wrote ‘Confessions of a Dungeons and Dragons Addict’ which you can easily find online. It is a very good defense of Christians playing DnD.

    He’s also pointed out tongue in cheek that Satan’s game is Monopoly….after all it teaches one to be greedy and to crush your rivals.

  • Charlie Baud says:

    One of the ironies in all this is that Gary Gygax was himself a Christian.

    http://drchris.me/d20/?p=156

    • Daniel says:

      Okay, I had never heard of Gygax’s genealogical link to Goliath before. Goliath’s sword was hung as a national symbol and kept by the priest Ahimelech. On one of David’s flights from Saul, he found himself in need of a sword, and Ahimilech gave it to David.

      Eventually, the Scythians claimed to have the sword, and brought it to Ireland.

      Perhaps Gygax was not descended from the Giant, but the keepers of his sword. I’m pretty sure the line of Giants of Gath ended with David and his Mighty Men.

      Hmm…D&D is sounding a lot more Biblical as we go…

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